By Prince Ejeh Josh
Few weeks ago, Enugu State was yet again in the glare of the media for the wrong reason. It was a protracted disagreement between Private Estates International West Africa LTD (PEIWA), a real estate developer, and the people of Obeagu and Amechi Awkunanaw over what the two communities alleged as illegal acquisition of their ancestral land by previous administration and ceded to the company. The land in issue was said have been extended from its original 318 hectares to 1097 hectares by the immediate past administration in the state. The disagreement has led to accusation and counteraccusation between the two warring parties which had eventually persuaded government’s intervention in an effort to prevent bloodshed and forestall public disorder.
Government’s move to salvage the situation was hailed and described as long overdue by many concerned citizens of the state. Keen watchers of the development have also found solace in the steps taken by the state to ensure that justice was not only served, but served with equity and sense of fairness to those involved. It is, however, appalling that those without genuine information about the transaction had taken to the media with a hasty conclusion. With the misleading tissue of lies sponsored by some invested interests and peddled against men of goodwill who are working tirelessly to give the state and the people the best form of good governance, It is, therefore, germane to set the record straight by unraveling the facts behind the scene.
On the strength of this, a summary of the subject matter of the controversy will be set out below. Precisely on March 10, 2009, the administration of former Governor Sullivan Iheanacho Chime allocated a parcel of land, measuring 1097 hectares of land at Obeagu and Amechi Awkunanan communities vide a Certificate of Occupancy with the aforementioned date and registered as number 20/20/1622 to Private Estate International West Africa Limited whose Chairman is one Mr. Pat Utomi, with Mr. Kingsley Eze and Mr. Patrick Okigbo as the company’s managing directors. The allocation, according to the aggrieved communities, was in flagrant violation of extant laws of the country, especially the Land Use Act and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It is not in doubt that these principal laws recognise, and indeed, guarantee the right of Nigerians, whether community, individual or group of persons, to own land and enjoy the accruing benefits from the land.
The two communities—Obeagu and Ameachi-Awkunanaw—had also cried foul that the expropriation of their land was a form of “settlement” of political and economic allies by vested interest. Despite outcry and protest by members of the public, the expropriating power treated the call by the people of Awkunanaw with disdain. Like King Ahab, the communities asserted that Private Estate International West Africa Limited “rose and forcefully occupied” their land, coercing the inhabitants to flee their God-given land. From the established facts on ground, there was neither compensation nor resettlement for the people dispossessed of their heritage. The reason for this, as will be seen, is simple: Private Estate International West Africa Ltd had revenged on its obligation to pay the state both ground rent and premium of over four billion naira, yet private sales of the land continue. This could have afforded the state a leeway to pay compensation as required by the law.
Flowing from the above narrative is a call for interrogation. It is, therefore, not out of place to probe this heart-wrenching display of impunity in the transaction. To reiterate the established vantage of the country’s legal code, the position of the law is well settled and further strengthened by the Supreme Court in a plethora of cases, that a Certificate of Occupancy evidencing Statutory Right of Occupancy does not confer a valid title once the conditions precedent are not complied with. In fact, the courts have variously described the Certificate of Occupancy as a “worthless piece of paper” that would never bestow a good root of title. Having been certain that the law is on their side, the people of Obeagu and Amechi Awkunanaw communities have been fighting to regain the possession of their ancestral land from the private company. But the fury of private estate, trying hard to deploy every instrument of violence and oppression against the people, has raised alarm from well-meaning Nigerians calling for the state’s intervention before it would be too late.
It was this raging battle over the land which was already threatening the peace of the state that prompted the state government’s intervention and subsequent review of the transaction. Ten years after the injustice, the government of Enugu state, unable to smoulder the alleged swindling of the people of Obeagu and Amechi communities rose to their rescue. The government had to dispassionately revisit the clandestine transaction that led to the ceding of the expanse of land to the private company, even as the company has been fleecing the land with impunity without meeting up with its imposed legal obligation by the Land Use Act and other extant laws of the state. It was during a fact-finding enquiry that some breathtaking discoveries were made by the present administration. It was established as against the law, that the transaction was neither presented, deliberated upon and approved by the State Executive Council nor was there any “yellow paper” issued under the official seal of the Government of Enugu State to sanction and give it a clean bill of health. The question literally begging for answer is; what was the 318 hectares of land originally meant for? Who acquired the hectares of land and why was it abandoned?
The above questions shall be briefly explored. The vast land in dispute was acquired sometime in 1983 for overriding public interest by the former governor of old Anambra State, Senator Jim Nwobodo, for the construction of Anambra State University of Science and Technology (ASUTECH). According to the Second Republic Governor, the state acquired the hectares of land for the primary purpose of an academic community. This plan was truncated due to the military junta which forcefully staged a coup and took over power in the country. However, down the lane of the country’s Fourth Republic, the plan to build the university on the land was changed with the institution now built at Agbani, Nkanu West local government area.
With this new development, it was expected that the land would ordinarily revert to the communities since the purpose of the acquisition had been defeated. Nay, some powerful clique would not allow that. In a characteristic Nazist design, they swooped on the people of Obeagu and Amechi, autocratically expropriating their settlements without due regard for the law. It was in the light of this confusion that the administration of Governor Ugwuanyi waded in to restore sanity.
It is pertinent to underscore that many sections of the society including human rights bodies and civil society organisations have greeted the peaceful path toed by the Ugwuanyi’s administration with deference. Chief among those that issued press release is the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA). Hear HURIWA’s passionate assessment of the steps taken by the state government: “Any state governor with a mindset that projects the state as investor’s friendly and yearns for rapid industrialization of the state must double up efforts towards tackling the threats posed by alleged land grabbers so as to truly make the ease of doing business seamless and result oriented. Land administration must be sanitized so as to attract go corporate citizens to invest in the state and create employment opportunities for the ordinary people of such state”.
Despite the above, Private Estate International West Africa Limited has resorted to blackmail to coerce the state to backtrack. It was even surprising that the company has been inciting the unsuspecting members of the public against the government, and even threatening fire and brimstone against an administration that has made peace its maxim. However, the governor has shown docility to peace in the face of these hostility and malicious provocation by mischief makers already holding sway, grabbing properties of their choice with flagrant impunity. The constituted authorities must not allow this injustice against the state to stand.
Ordinarily, many governments would have wanted to launch a retaliatory punch at its detractors to serve as deterrence to other belligerents, but the Governor would prefer peace to reign, and would even extend the olive branch. This might have prompted the said Private Estates International West Africa LTD already known for its notoriety for evading taxes and perpetuating fraud, to insist on disparaging the unsullied image and undisputed integrity of the government confidently weaved around the citizens over the past years.
Thus, unable to bribe its way through or sway the present administration on why its questionable acts should be waived, the company has resorted to blackmail to bamboozle the state government into making some concession by alleging that the Honourable Commissioner for Lands and Urban Development, Dr. Victor Chukwuemeka Nnam, forged the signature of the principal officers of the Obeagu Development Union. The truth is; anyone who knows Dr. Victor and the goodwill he enjoys from time immemorial would dismiss the misleading attack against his person as a hoax and beyond reasonable comprehension of right-minded people. The Commissioner for Lands and Urban Development, prior to his appointment by the administration of Governor Ugwuanyi, has been held as an epitome of integrity in the field of surveying. Young as he is, public opinions have always tilted massively in his favour in terms of competence, confidentiality, integrity and probity. It, therefore, flies in the face of reality the company would rather prefer to destroy the hard earned integrity and goodwill of the young man just to get to the state government. Unfortunately for the company, such ploy had been foiled before now given the company’s antecedent of complicity in sharp practices.
Blackmailing the Commissioner for blocking their years of entrenched corrupt practices was only a frustrated attempt of giving a dog a bad name just to nail it. It would, indeed, interest the public that the same company that hailed the appointment of Dr. Victor Chukwuemeka Nnam as Commissioner for Lands and Urban Development, and vouched for his untainted character and integrity would voce-face and accused him of forgery. It is a trite law that nobody can approbate and reprobate at the same time. All this has changed overnight because the commissioner demanded that the right thing be done. Available documents have shown that the private company did not fulfill any of the conditions for the grant of the land in dispute. This makes the acquisition process, both in law and in fact, inchoate. Painstakingly reading through the letters of the Land Use Act authoritatively reveals that refusal to pay rents—here refer to as ground rent and premium and failure to fulfill the terms of grant—is a ground for revocation. How would the government pay compensation when the efforts to do that have been frustrated by those thinking they are above the law? Over four billion naira into individuals’ pockets, yet they believe that the end justifies the means.
To be factual, available documents show the said project was meant to be a development partnership between the company and the State Government. But the condition was never fulfilled. The company was running the project without regard for the law of the land, and for the agreement it reached with the state in 2009. More saddening is the fact that the structures being developed at the Centenary City couldn’t withstand integrity test as regulatory bodies were disregarded in the execution of the project. Worthy of note too is the fact that no approval was given by the Enugu State Capital Territory Development Authority as it was never approached by the company. Since the allege ceding of the land to PEIWA, substantial part of the land has been deliberately left fallow raising suspicion of land speculation among the people, while parts of the land have been sold to private individuals over the past decade without remitting any returns to the communities or the state.
The above prompted the revocation of the land. Despite this, the ecumenical Governor had initiated a peace process that would reconcile the parties with important steps taken since then. But the company would not agree to a truce. For the management of the company, the communal land is their birthright. This is why they are bent at resorting to arm-twisting and blackmailing of the government in the media, just as they believe they could buy up media houses with brown envelops.
The best step taken so far by the government was the revocation of the land in dispute. This has become a huge relief for the people of Obeagu and Amechi Awkunanaw communities. It has been jubilation since the revocation of the land was announced. The people hitherto dispossessed of their land can now heave a sigh of relief by claiming back what rightfully belongs to them except the needful is done. As noted in a document jointly signed by the representatives of the communities affected, Chief Richard Nnamani and Chief Ogbu Andy Ogbu, Governor Ugwuanyi’s action was likened to a deus ex machina and divine restoration of their hope. In all this, the private company should face their music alone and leave the commissioner out of their woes. The commissioner must not be distracted from doing the great jobs he has already started executing for the good people of Enugu state.
DISCLAIMER: All views expressed on our opinion page are those of the writer and do not represent the position of INSIDER or any of its reporters/editors.